Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Getting on the Road..... An AT Success Story

by Rosie McDonnell

Tomorrow I get to take my behind the wheel test, and if all goes well, I will be a California licensed driver. This has been a LONG, hard and sometimes what felt impossible, road. Looking back on every experience, I can proudly say that I have grown from it and am much appreciative of the progress I’ve made. Let me tell you what it took for me to get to this point. 

Before I began the process of starting my driving journey, I had spent a lot of time talking to other people who have accessible vehicles and how they went through the process. I took their experience and advice, and pieced together my own goal. I walked to this not knowing how long this would take, where to even start or exactly what I wanted. Every piece of my two year journey was being decided and planned out as it happened. 

I am writing this for you; I understand that my journey might be a lot different than yours might be, but I feel it’s important to share my story. I appreciated all of the views I received beforehand, and it helped me more than I knew.

So here we go! Rewinding to the summer of 2010. About a week after my graduation, I did some research for hand control training and installation places in San Diego. I got in contact with a place at Sharp Rehab Hospital, that did trainings and hand control certifications. After being transferred to a few different people, I found out that their program doesn’t accept new/beginner drivers like myself. They only work with licensed drivers who need the hand control certification and minimal hours of training. I thanked them for their information, and had to pick myself back up. Back to square root 1.

About a month after I graduated, I attended a leadership program for youth with disabilities (Youth Leadership Forum, YLF) and there, I learned a lot about different resources available for me. One of these being Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) http://www.rehab.cahwnet.gov/. 

I had heard a lot of people tell me stories of how DOR helped them pay for the equipment in their car, and training for beginner drivers. So I scheduled an initial appointment with a counselor and learned that they would be able to help me cover the modifications for my car since it would help me reach my employment goal. My counselor told me the first few steps: get my permit, get an authorization for the evaluation place, and then I can get measured for equipment. 

So fast forward a few months, I studied my butt off for the written test and passed! Permit, check. 

Now, onto getting DOR to sign off on the authorization.

The authorization goes through for me to go do my first evaluation at Mobility Evaluations Program in Santa Fe Springs http://www.rehab.cahwnet.gov/MEP/. Authorization, check. My parents and I drove up early one morning, and started off with an initial occupational therapist to test my strength/abilities so that we can measure up the proper equipment for me. After 3 hours, I was finally able to talk with the engineers. This is when we decided to use hand controls and find some sort of lift or ramp to get my wheelchair in and out of the car. For the time being, we left my chair in the trunk, and off we went. Based on how I drove with the instructors and engineers, was determined how many hours of training I would need. A bid, or list of equipment I was planning on using was written up, along with any other modifications. In my case I had the following: hand controls, low-effort steering, lift/ramp for my wheelchair, and a cushion so that I would be at the proper height to see over the steering wheel. I’m only 4’1”, so seeing past the wheel was definitely a problem. Measurements, check.

After we wrote up the equipment that was going to be installed/modified, it was now my responsibility to find a vehicle that fit our budget, less than 70,000 miles on it, no older than a 2007, crash tested and approved with modifications, and capable to fit my needs.  Seemed like a huge bill to fit at first. I was so overwhelmed with the new responsibility I had, but I took this as a challenge, and made it my job to find the answers to. So my dad and I sought out ideas for cars. What did other people have? What combinations are available? Different styles of lifts, warranty, reliability, practicality etc. This process took a lot of time. It took us a while to find what option would fit me and my abilities the best, and would also be reliable enough to last me through college (the next five years). 

We started our research online. Looking at cars that fit all of the above listed requirements, and as we quickly learned, it did not come with a small price tag. I also had done research at the Los Angeles Abilities Expo. There they have a lot of resources for cars, and connection of people who are able to guide me in the right direction. This is when I met a woman named Martine Kempf http://www.kempf-usa.com. I saw her new mechanism for hand controls, and it’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before. (See attached link! It’s new bounds for assistive technology). I got the chance to sit in her test car at the expo, and thought that this is something I would like to pursue. Martine then connected me with a man who had recently installed her system of hand controls in his modified van, and encouraged me to contact him (since he was local in San Diego). This is when I connected with Steve and his family. He brought his van to my house and I got a test drive in his newly equipped car. It had all the bells and whistles, including my dream hand controls. After our conversation about his process with getting the modifications, we started talking about his lift that he also had installed. It was a product by Adapt Solutions, a company in Canada http://www.adapt-solutions.ca . The Speedy Lift, is a basic mechanism that picks up a manual chair from behind the drivers seat. There is a base that picks up the bottom of the frame from your chair and brings it right into the car. Their company also sells transfer boards from a manual wheelchair, to the drivers seat. At first, I didn’t think this is something I would, but looking back at it now, I’m glad that I did. I had never seen, or heard of the company before, so I was able to get another great connection from this first meeting with Steve. 

With all of this new information, I had created a solid list of equipment I was ‘window shopping’ for. Now, I just needed to find the car that would fit this equipment. I called the company directly and asked them which types of vehicles could be adapted to work with the lifts. My options were a Chrysler Minivan, a Town&Country Minivan, a Mazda5, a Toyota Sienna, or a Honda Element. From this conversation I looked into Elements. I wasn’t too thrilled on having a van for a few reasons. One, I felt that the car was too big for me to handle as a first car. I wanted something smaller, but enough cushion to protect me out on the road. Two, vans are typically more expensive, and sit up higher from the ground than the other vehicles which was another concern that I had. So, I put my energy into researching the Honda Element. 

Once I brought back all my information to the engineers at Mobility Evaluation, they were thrilled to hear about the new equipment that I was looking into. Unfortunately, the type of hand controls that I wanted was out of DOR’s price range, so I ended up going with the push angle standard hand controls. I also included the transfer board and lift into my wish list for DOR. Those two items were approved. As for the Honda Element, the engineers steered clear from that. What I learned is that Elements have not been property crash tested and passed with all of the equipment installed. So what does this mean? Basically, the state will not pay for equipment to be installed into a vehicle if they have not been properly crash tested. Back to the drawing board for vehicles. Next, was the Mazda5. It is essentially a ‘mini-minivan’, pre-approved by the engineers, and will accommodate the lift that I wanted as well. With this decision, my parents and I found a used 2008 Mazda5 with 68,000 miles on it, and great condition. A few days later and some proper negotiating, the car was mine!

Now, it was Mobility Evaluation’s responsibility to send out the bid (list of equipment) and see who in San Diego would be installing my equipment into my car. 

A few months go by, and we finally get a response from Ability Center in San Diego. I was in contact with one of their general managers at our first meeting. The initial bid was not processed correctly and there was a miscommunication between Mobility Evaluation, and Ability Center, so a few more weeks went by. They fixed the corrections, and now we were able to order the parts for my equipment. About a week passes and all of the equipment was finally delivered. Because I ordered the lift from Canada, the shipping process took a little bit longer to get verified. At this point, I was able to bring my car down to San Diego for the installation process to begin. The engineers who would be working on my car told me that they would have my car for 4-6 weeks. After all the equipment installed, I went back down to San Diego for a fitting to make sure the equipment was going to work for me. Initially, I was supposed to use a push-right angle hand control, but because of the way my car was formatted, and the position I was sitting in, I wasn’t able to use those hand controls to their fullest extent. So we went back to the drawing board and decided that I could use push-rock hand controls. The mechanism is still the same, which was no problem for me. (This is the part where I tell you to double, even triple check your equipment. Make sure you are 110% comfortable with everything because otherwise, it will make your driving experience more difficult.)

After I did the first fitting, I waited for them to install the new type of hand controls, and also for the cushions to be delivered. Since I am only 4’1” it would be impossible for me to see over the steering wheel if I didn’t have a cushion. So, meanwhile, I had to go back to the DMV. It had been over a year when I first got my permit, so I needed to renew it. I made an appointment, went back to the DMV, did all the paperwork, and passed my test. Now I was up to date with my permit, and was able to go out and test drive my car with the new hand controls once they were installed. 

I got a call a few weeks later letting me know that my equipment was installed, and the cushion had been delivered. So my mom and I drove down there and did another fitting. The hand controls weren’t in the exact right spot once I was in the correct sitting position, so we had to make a few adjustments, and also the cushion wasn’t ordered correctly. So more waiting, until the hand controls were adjusted and the new cushion was made.

In the mean time, I called my counselor over at DOR, and asked her who I was supposed to connect with as far as hand control training. She then connected me with Jim, the engineer over at Mobility Evaluation Program. I was then finally connected with Akim, who is a driving instructor from Santa Monica. He specializes in hand controls and behind the wheel training. Once I got my car all equipped and finalized, then it was time for Jim to inspect all that was installed. Once Mobility Evaluation Program signed off on the equipment, then a federal inspector came from Arizona to finalize the inspection. 

This whole process took about another 2 weeks, and then I was able to have the car delivered to me. 
The following week after I had the car back in my own driveway, I started my behind the wheel training with Akim.

I started out with 10 hours each weekend, to fulfill my 30 hour requirement as written by DOR. Initially, I was really anxious to learn how to drive, but as time went on, I was able to be more confident. I had a really great experience with my instructor. He set up his training the same way as the DMV examiners would, which helped me so much.

Looking back, I felt like the process would never end. I am proud of myself for going through this whole experience and learning how to navigate everything on my own. I have been able to share my experience with other people and I hope that this helps in any way. Remember, this is my own personal experience. Yours can, and probably will be completely different.

Do you have an AT success story to share? Please enter it in the comment section below or email us at info@atnetwork.org.


  1. Hey, very nice site. I came across this on Google, and I am stoked that I did. I will definitely be coming back here more often. Wish I could add to the conversation and bring a bit more to the table, but am just taking in as much info as I can at the moment. Thanks for sharing.
    Wheelchair Transport

    Keep Posting:)

  2. Hey, very nice site. I came across this on Google, and I am stoked that I did. I will definitely be coming back here more often. Wish I could add to the conversation and bring a bit more to the table, but am just taking in as much info as I can at the moment. Thanks for sharing.
    Lightweight Wheelchair

    Keep Posting:)